Man Who Wore Fake Military Medals Challenges Stolen Valor Law

Military experts say stolen valor not a free speech issue.

ByABC News
February 8, 2010, 2:41 PM

Feb. 9, 2010— -- At a time when returning soldiers are regarded as national heroes and the number of war dead continues to rise, lying about medals affixed to a military uniform is seen as a lie so foul, it is criminal.

It is being challenged now in federal court. Xavier Alvarez, a California man convicted in 2007 of falsely claiming to be a decorated Marine, is asking the U.S. Court of Appeals to overturn the conviction and rule the Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional. A ruling could come at any time.

Most legal experts think he will lose. But he argues that his right to free speech -- even his right to lie -- is protected by the First Amendment.

"It's no more free speech than yelling 'Fire!' in a crowded theater is free speech," Georgetown University law professor Gary Solis told

Alvarez was a member of a California municipal water board when he claimed at a 2007 meeting that he was a former Marine with 25 years service and that he had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military honor awarded by the U.S. government. He is now in prison on an unrelated conviction for insurance fraud.

"I'm not going to defend what Mr. Alvarez said. It was wrong," Deputy Federal Public Defender Jonathan Libby said. "The First Amendment is supposed to mean something."

Upholding the Stolen Valor Act, Libby said, basically gives Congress the right to decide which lies are punishable as crimes. Alvarez didn't commit perjury, he said, and he didn't use his claims to collect veterans affairs benefits. His crime hurt no one, Libby argues.

"People tell lies about all sorts of things all the time," Libby said. "And the First Amendment certainly protects the right to lie."

Solis, a former Marine prosecutor and a two-tour Vietnam veteran, said lying about military service is an affront to anybody who has proudly worn a U.S. military uniform.

"It's repulsive. It makes me want to punch someone," he said.

People who lie about military medals are "attempting to gain recognition and personal favor and tangibly better treatment on the basis of the valor of others who have sacrificed greatly, perhaps with their lives," he said.